Aviation business in Bangladesh hit hard amid coronavirus fear

The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has impacted the aviation sector of Bangladesh, affecting migrant workers, expatriates and the international travel, airline and airport officials said.

Airlines either suspended or rescheduled their flights to and from the Dhaka and Chattogram airports in Bangladesh from and to various international destinations.

Many operators in this situation are offering discounts on latest purchases from them while announcing full waiver for the cancellations and change fees for their flights.

On Friday, Kuwait’s directorate general of civil aviation suspended all flights to and from seven countries, including Bangladesh, amid the fear of the coronavirus that has already spread to more than 100 countries around the world.

The other countries are Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.

The suspension would remain effective for one week from March 6, according to the instruction.

The Kuwait authorities also prohibited entry to the country of those who stayed in the seven countries in the past two weeks.

At least three people were found infected with the COVID-19 infection in Bangladesh, according to officials on Sunday.

Biman Bangladesh Airlines on Saturday cancelled two of its flights on the Dhaka–Kuwait route following the Kuwaiti decision , said Tahera Khondokar, deputy general manager, public relations of the national flag carrier.

Forty-year-old Bangladeshi Mohammad Rashed has been a driver in Kuwait for 20 years and is on leave in Dhaka.

He was scheduled to fly back tomorrow in a Qatar Airways flight but suddenly he came to know that the travellers from Bangladesh would not be allowed in that country.

‘What will I do? I have already spoken to my Kuwaiti employer. I will face a similar fate as others are facing now,’ said Rashed from Nawabganj in Dhaka.

Local and international flight operators in Dhaka said that the passenger load factor had seen a drastic fall for international destinations like Italy, Singapore, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, among others, since February.

They are now rescheduling their flights until May, they said.

The Bangladeshi national flag carrier faced multiple problems due to the situation.

Biman’s plan to launch flights to the Chinese city of Guangzhou was held up due to the coronavirus outbreak.

According to Biman officials, Bangladesh had kept ready its facilities for the inspection by the Chinese authorities and the tentative date was February 12.

But the Chinese authorities have put the decision on hold for now.

‘They have kept pending their decision for the inspection, which will ultimately influence our decision on when to fly,’ Biman managing director and chief executive officer Md Mokabbir Hossain told New Age.

Biman instead is focusing on the resumption of the Dhaka–Tokyo flight operations, the officials said.

Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport director Group Captain AHM Touhid-ul Ahsan said that the passenger flow declined significantly along with the number of international flights.

He said that Thai Airways had used to operate 14 flights a week on the Dhaka-Bangkok route, which now became half of that while Dragon Air currently operated five flights in place of the seven a week earlier.

The HSIA director said that China Southern and Eastern airlines and US-Bangla, too, already decreased their flight frequencies with China.

All the airlines earlier used to operate one flight between Bangladesh and China daily but now they are operating the flight thrice a week, he said.

US-Bangla Airlines general manager (public relations) Kamrul Islam said that the load factor in each of their flights decreased on average from 30 to 40 per cent.

He further said that they had been operating three flights on Dhaka–Guangzhou a week now instead of seven a week since February 13 and would maintain this frequency until March 28.

‘If the situation improves, then a fresh schedule will be announced,’ he added.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh has instructed all flights from China to park at Bay 15 at the Dhaka airport while passengers have been instructed to disembark separately as a precaution against the spread of the virus, officials said.

Not only on the Bangladesh-China routes, Turkish Airways regional marketing representative Ariful Islam Rajon said that 30 per cent of their Bangladeshi passengers decreased over the situation.

All of their flights to seven cities in Italy, and to others destinations in Iraq and Iran, among others, from their hub in Istanbul were cancelled until April 1, affecting many Bangladeshis living in Italian cities, especially in Milan.

He said that their passengers who held Italy flight tickets for the period between February 28 and April 1 reservations could be changed free of charge, provided the new reservation would be for a flight taking place by May 31, 2020.

Ariful said that refunds would be made for unused tickets, while for the partially used tickets, where the trip has not been completed, passengers would be provided with route changes to the extent possible or would receive refunds for the non-used portion of the ticket.

Sohail Majid, director marketing and sales at Regent Airways, said that their daily flights to and

from Singapore and Kualalampur decreased to thrice a week.

‘The load factor on the Dhaka–Kolkata and Chattogram–Kolkata routes fell to 50 per cent from the average 90 per cent due to the situation,’ he said, adding, ‘At least two passengers were sent back to Bangladesh from India in the past week for their temperature.’

Novo Air was planning to announce the launch of their flights with China but their decision was too put on hold until further notice.

AKM Mahfuzul Alam, a senior manager marketing at Novo Air, said that their load factor on the Dhaka–Kolkata route was 87 per cent in February but dropped to 70 per cent in the first week of March.

‘The load factor in the first week of March 2019 was 92 per cent,’ said the airline’s senior executive.

Bangladeshi operators said that their domestic flight frequencies already fell by at least 5 per cent over the past six weeks as foreigners, especially Chinese passengers, were not appearing.

Migrant workers also suffered due to the rescheduling of flights bound for Middle Eastern destinations.

On Saturday night, Air Arabia suddenly suspended its flights to and from Dhaka and later rescheduled their flights involving over 600 passengers destined for Saudi Arabia via the United Arab Emirates.

Nearly one hundred passengers were found waiting at the Air Arabia office at Karwan Bazar on Sunday evening since the morning.

Jahangir Alam, who was to leave for Saudi Arab in an Air Arabia flight on Sunday morning, told New Age in the evening that dozens of passengers were not given boarding cards when they went to the airport.

‘We were told that the flights from the UAE to Saudi Arab were kept suspended due to the virus causing the rescheduling,’ said Jahangir, who received his ticket in the evening.

In the evening, the airline’s executives were seen announcing that their flights were rescheduled or tickets would be given on desired dates.

Since March 5, flight operators said, several hundred Bangladeshis intending to perform umrah could not fly to Saudi Arabia as the country suddenly suspended visas for the pilgrims in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

The unprecedented Saudi move has also created uncertainties about this year’s annual hajj to be held in August.

Hajj Agencies Association of Bangladesh secretary general Shahadat Hossain Taslim said, ‘Some two lakh Bangladeshis perform umrah every year between September and May depending the time of Ramadan’.

The Biman MD said that they already sold over 3,300 tickets on 11 Saudi-bound flights in a week but their marketing division was working now to cancel those.

‘We have nothing to do with the decision. But the flights will continue as passengers from Saudi Arabia have already booked tickets for Bangladesh,’ said Mokabbir.

Mokabbir said that the Saudi embassy in Dhaka had informed him that the decision was a ‘very temporary’ one and the restriction would be lifted anytime.

The Biman top official said that no pilgrim or visitor would be allowed in Saudi Arabia until the ban was lifted.

They can take refund or wait for lifting the ban, he said.

A number of travel marts were also cancelled in March while many operators were now providing discount to attract passengers.

‘Now, it is a question of our survival,’ said a senior executive of an airline.

More than 3,500 people have died in China and some other affected countries and over 1,00,000 have been infected so far since its outbreak in China late December. (Source: New Age)

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